On Being A Devil’s Advocate VS Being The Angel’s Advocate.

I’m just finished reading a very good book by the guy who founded Behance – Scott Belsky – titled Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles between Vision & Reality.

We’ve all seen our share of creative directors who believe that critiques should be based on finding out what’s wrong with a piece of work. But in a chapter on giving creative feedback, Belsky has this marvelous little section I wanted to share with you.

In the lead-up to this excerpt, the author talks about a creative retreat he went to, one on the art of storytelling, led by a man named Jay O’Callahan. He wrote about his first try at telling a story to the group after which….

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I was grateful for the positive response from the group, but I was eager (and somewhat anxious) for critical feedback. I wanted to know what went wrong. Then I remembered that the workshop operated with a very nontraditional approach to sharing feedback. Specifically, constructive criticism was not allowed. Rather than bracing myself for the onslaught of critical comments, I would have to refine my story by listening to the group’s “appreciations.”

Appreciations is a technique O’Callahan and other storytellers use to improve students’ skills without any demoralizing consequences. It’s a unique form of feedback that helps creative professionals focus on developing their strengths. Here’s the concept behind appreciations: having just shared a story (or, in other contexts, a presentation or an idea), you go around the room and ask people to comment on the elements they most appreciated.

In my case, many people appreciated the pace at which I told the story. I also received a lot of unexpected comments about the character descriptions I’d provided. After hearing the aspects of the story that people appreciated most, I got a sense for what strengths I should emphasize even more in future stories.

The exchange of appreciations is meant to help you build upon your strengths, with the underlying assumption that a creative craft is made extraordinary through developing your strengths rather than obsessing over your weaknesses. And I noticed that a natural recalibration happens when you commend someone’s strengths: their weaknesses are lessened as their strengths are emphasized. As my storytelling compatriots recounted their stories a second and third time, the points of weakness withered away naturally as the most beautiful parts became stronger.

“It is strange that, in our culture, we are trained to look for weaknesses,” O’Callahan explained to me. “When I work with people, they are often surprised when I point out the wonderful crucial details – the parts that are alive.” O’Callahan went on to suggest that “if our eyes are always looking for weakness, we begin to lose the intuition to notice beauty.”

Of course, the contrarian’s view to this approach is that more direct feedback and criticism might help one cut to the chase. O’Callahan would argue that appreciation-based feedback helps us access a deeper creativity.

People need to relax to be able to discover. Our unconscious won’t come forward and help us see things when we are too logical and focused on criticism. Sometimes someone will say, “I just want to know how to improve, not what is good.” People think that pointing out faults is the only way to improve. Appreciations are not about being polite. They are about pointing out what is alive.

As O’Callahan explains, “Everyone thinks they can tell you what is good. But, no, it takes years to be able to say, ‘That phrase is fresh, that was a lovely image about sheets on the bed like snow-covered mountains, it was just lovely.’ It is hard to get people to pay attention to that skill.”

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Thought people might enjoy that. I sure did.


  1. This makes so much sense. I try (not always successfully) to use this approach with students and I so value when people critique my writing this way. Thanks for this.


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Luke Sullivan

Author, speaker, and ad veteran available to recharge, reinvigorate, and refocus marketing, advertising, and branding firms.

I give a hugely energetic series of presentations on innovation, creativity, branding, and marketing. I spent 32 years in the trenches of advertising (at agencies like Martin, GSD&M, and Fallon) and I’ve put everything I learned into my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But for me nothing beats taking the message out and speaking to living breathing audiences at clients, agencies, and conferences. You can book me on the button below.